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A New Playground for Terrorists

Counter-terrorism authorities[1] are concerned with the growing ability and skills of terrorists to spread their propaganda through the conversion of the Internet into a globally efficient recruitment tool[2]. It is all the more worrying since the second-generation of Jihadis are able to indoctrinate, train and take actions through the help of the Internet alone. However, it appears that what we call “the Internet” may be an obsolete notion. Different types of Internet with different platforms are already in motion, enabling anyone free from regulations established on the “regular” Internet to display and look for information.

As announced by the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry[3] on March 1, China has created three domain names in Chinese characters, resulting in web sites and email addresses inaccessible to non-Chinese users[4]. The League of Arab States started to work on a comparable project called Arabic Domain Names Pilot Project[5] 18 months ago. The objective for both initiatives is to fill the gap between Western Internet users and left-behind China and Arabic countries. Consequently, the development of web addresses and email addresses written in Arabic and Chinese could help the web change into many new dimensions.

This trend may well lead to the creation of parallel networks called “splinternets”[6], a term created and defended by the Cato Institute in April 2001, which looked at this medium through a business-oriented bias: “Splintering, though it will be criticized as Balkanization, increases our options and wealth. It also protects our rights, which depend upon the institution of private property”[7]. It seems clear that the trade-off between security, freedom and open trade does not operate as it used to before September 11th. Thus, a cliché passage by the Cato Institute may not really fit into our highly unstable contemporary world.

The Internet frame is currently coordinated by a private, non-profit group called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which works under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Commerce. As the use of the Internet became a mainstream apparatus, a controversy arose about the Internet governance issue and the lack of a multi-language system for the writings of web addresses and emails. ICANN is accused of being a potential pawn in the hands of U.S foreign policy (such as stopping the Internet traffic in a “rogue” state) as well as a barrier for billions of people in reaching the global network, since the English language dominates the web.

On the other hand, new networks can easily be set up outside ICANN regulations. Therefore, it should be expected to see more splinternets appearing in the upcoming years. Even though ICANN is internationalizing domain names, it seems obvious that the upper hand over the Internet has now become an essential element of countries’ soft power. When a country is not dependant on the U.S., countries could develop their own network. In truth, this situation could deeply transform the Internet, and therefore create loopholes that terrorist organizations could and will certainly enjoy, if it is not already the case.

The knowledge in terms of propaganda, recruitment, and tactical information gathered from the Internet over the years by counter-terrorism authorities will certainly remain valid and necessary since Western users represent the majority of the world’s Internet users. This implies that the Western users are possible targets that terrorist groups cannot abandon.

But non-ICANN regulated networks supported by countries’ coalitions, or even private networks, are inexpensive to those who desire it. For instance, the company called “UnifiedRoot” based in Amsterdam offers “the right to register any domain name of their choosing, such as replacing .com with the name of their company” [8]. The price is $1,000 to register and an additional $250 each year thereafter. Users of the ICANN-managed Internet can’t access those Web sites.

The ICANN-regulated Internet is assumed to be universal, with a unique framework. Therefore, the trend of Internet fragmentation could become a major threat to Western security. What if these existing networks were already used to develop, discuss and set up the grand strategy of Jihadi groups? Since the phenomenon of splinternet is still relatively new, this should be a major focus for counter-terrorism authorities to combat. However, some critical questions arise in the process. How could Western security services access those splinternets if their PCs are not Arabic or Chinese enabled? Would there be enough people able to understand those websites’ contents?

Language is not only the only issue. The web should be completely re-conceptualized by counter-terrorism authorities since the power of communicating through unregulated channels on unregulated (and unknown) networks can modify the world balance of power. Counter-terrorism authorities are not ready for this re-conceptualization. It should be noted that apart from some countries’ effort, the private sector is very active via the lobbying of some firms such as SaudiNIC based in Saudi Arabia[9] in the interest of an Arabic Internet. The future of geopolitics would be quite different with an Arabic, a Chinese, and maybe in the future a Hurdu or Hindi-enabled Internets; the spreading of propaganda, the recruitments’ techniques, the cultural divide, etc. All these issues must be addressed now through an International coordination, before it is too late.

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1] “Counter-terrorism authorities” is a comprehensive term which includes police forces, military offices and academic researchers

[2] For instance, see Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate, “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the U.S”, April 2006, 

[3] Tom Espiner, “China to set up its own Splinternet”, Webwatch, March 2nd, 2006,,39024667,39156904,00.htm 

[4] Christopher Rhoads, “Could rivals create a Splinternet? — Chinese, Arabs, some in Europe push new systems”, The Wall Street Journal Europe, January 19, 2006

[5] See 

[6] Clyde Wayne Crews, Jr., “One Internet Is Not Enough”, The Cato Institute, April 11, 2001 

[7] Ibid

[8] Christopher Rhoads, “Could rivals create a Splinternet? — Chinese, Arabs, some in Europe push new systems”,

The Wall Street Journal Europe, January 19, 2006

[9] Anas Asiri, SaudiNIC experience in ADN pilot project, June 2006,